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3 reasons gender diversity is crucial to science

Data reveals that the world needs more women in STEM; here’s why

Helena Deus, PhD, Technology Research Director at Elsevier, presents on trends in machine learning and AI – and why women are needed to write the algorithms – at the Women in Tech Summit in Philadelphia. (Photo by Alison Bert)
Helena Deus, PhD, Technology Research Director at Elsevier, presents on trends in machine learning and AI – and why women are needed to write the algorithms – at the Women in Tech Summit in Philadelphia. (Photo by Alison Bert)

Gender diversity has become a buzz phrase – and paradoxically, that can be a problem when stressing its importance in science, technology and medicine. The ubiquitous hashtag #genderdiversity is used for everything from salary disparity to sexual harassment – certainly extremely important issues to address. But the need for more women in science goes beyond issues fairness and ethics: our world would be better off with more women in the labs, clinics and clinical trials. Here’s why.

1. Scientific research is more accurate when gender is considered.

Dr. Heisook Lee, President of the Korea Center for WISET, speaks at the Gender Summit Asia-Pacific. (Photo by Alison Bert)

Whether you’re studying seat belt design or heart medication, your research should consider gender and include both male and female subjects. Why? As Dr. Elizabeth Pollitzer likes to point out, borrowing a phrase from the authors of a paper on whiplash injuries, “Women are not scaled down men.” For products to be safe and effective, they need to be tested on women as well as men.

Yet researchers often neglect to consider the gender of their subjects. “Many still don’t know that failing to consider sex and gender in the research itself is also limiting the benefits of today’s science,” wrote Prof. Heisook Lee, President of the Korea Center for WISET (Women in Science, Engineering and Technology), in her Elsevier Connect story “Why science is gender biased – and what we can do about it.”

“Most scientific research does not consider sex or gender as variables and treats male as the norm,” she explained, “resulting in different health and safety outcomes for women and men.”

As an example, Dr. Lee pointed to Jeffrey Mogil’s presentation at the Gender Summit Asia-Pacific she co-chaired in 2016. Researchers at his Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University have observed significant differences in how male and female mice process pain. Dr. Mogil explained that different neural circuits, transmitters, receptors and genes are relevant to pain processing in males and females.

Heart disease also affects women and men differently. Women often have different symptoms than men and respond differently to medication, explained Dr. Vera Regitz-Zagrosek, Director of the Institute of Gender in Medicine and Deputy Director of the Center for Cardiovascular Research at Charité Berlin. Writing about six problems that plague cardiovascular care for women, she stated:There is a lack of research, a lack of research funding, a lack of animal models and a lack of researchers that understand these problems.”

As a pioneer and major proponent of gender medicine, Dr. Regitz-Zogrosek has worked to establish gender medicine as an academic discipline.

Another leading proponent of gender in science is Prof. Londa Schiebinger of Stanford University, who coined the term “gendered innovations” to describe scientific discoveries enabled by including women as research subjects or by considering gender as a factor in research. The Gendered Innovations website, developed with funding from the European Commission, has numerous case studies from a wide range of fields showing how considering gender in research can lead to better and safer research outcomes and products. That could mean coming up with a better design for seatbelts and airbags by having crash dummies built like women, or developing safer drugs by including females in toxicology tests.

2. Women bring unique perspectives to research and scientific conversation.

As a winner of the 2017 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, Dr. Tanzima Hashem, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, talks about the importance of encouraging young women to pursue engineering sciences. (Photo by Alison Bert)

When it comes to research in both the academic and private sectors, gender diversity can have a number of advantages. Elsevier’s report Gender in the Global Research Landscape, which analyzes research performance over two decades, focuses on two of them.

The authors write that diverse research teams are more likely to come up with new ideas and perspectives, citing a report in the Harvard Business Review. And citing research featured in The Atlantic, they add that “diversity adds to the collective intelligence of a research group,” enhancing creativity and providing new contexts to understand societal aspects of the research.

The societal angle is evident in the work of Dr. Sun-Young Rieh, a professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Seoul. For one of her research projects, she investigated whether

The changing gender roles and distinct needs of today’s women were reflected in the guidelines for public rental housing in Seoul.

In her presentation at the Gender Summit Asia-Pacific, she showed a slide of a public housing guide rife with gender stereotypes, like drawings of women wearing aprons and a woman serving dinner to a man seated at the table.

“Traditionally, the guidelines are developed by males,” she said, adding that architecture tends to be a male-dominated profession.

Referring to the “myth of family and marriage,” she went on to show a typical floor plan. It was designed for traditional middle-class families, with a master bedroom and designated bath that would provide no flexibility for the housing needs of low-income dwellers, single parents or extended families such as those with aging parents. She also discovered that the grounds were not designed in a way that was “gender sensitive,” pointing out, for example, that the sprawling parking area did not allow for natural surveillance. Her suggestions included “inclusive design,” flexible units with rooms that can be adapted for multiple purposes, and community facilities that are safe, well-lit and accessible.

For a researcher in Bangladesh, being a woman has made her aware of hardships faced by many women in her country. Dr. Tanzima Hashem, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, is addressing these issues with smartphone technology.

After she won a 2017 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, I interviewed her about this work.

“In our country, it is common that women face harassment on the street, in public transport and at public events,” she explained.

But women don’t feel comfortable telling others about it. So she led the development of an app that allows women to share their experiences while having their privacy protected. The SafeStreet app, now in prototype, will give users suggestions for a safe route based on harassment history.

Even technology and data science, with their mathematical underpinnings, are subject to gender bias. As Dr. Helena Deus, Director of Disruptive Technologies at Elsevier, pointed out in her workshop at last year’s Women in Tech Summit in Philadelphia: “AI and machine learning are about to launch us into a revolution the scale of the Industrial Revolution – and to avoid bias, we need more women writing the algorithms.”

Dr. Helena Deus used this slide to show examples of gender bias in AI.

She gave several examples, including how corporations use AI software to screen job applicants:

A warning to all of us, who love tech and would like our resumes to be evaluated fairly when we apply for jobs. If AI is being used to decide who is hired into technology roles and care is not taken to balance the dataset, it will be likely that the AI bot will reject your resume because it has learned that the gender is highly correlated with whether someone is hired into a tech role. Simple changes to the training set, such as removing any information that might denote gender – may allow for much fairer hiring practices.

There are number examples of women doing scientific and medical research inspired by their experiences as women. Of course it’s possible that men could do the same research and come to the same conclusions. But often, being a woman influences the research people pursues and the questions they choose to ask.

The aim for diverse perspectives is behind various initiatives at Elsevier, including gender balance on our editorial boards and conferences.

3. We need more STEM professionals.

Men significantly outnumber women in engineering research around the world. (Source: <a target="_blank" href="https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/314434/RI_GenderReport_2017_Infographic_Engineering_A3_v3.pdf">Infographic</a> based on Elsevier’s report <em>Gender in the Global Research Landscape</em>)

Men significantly outnumber women in the STEM workforce, and in some of these fields, professionals are in short supply. Meanwhile, universities say they’re having hard time retaining women in STEM at the highest levels. According to Elsevier’s gender report: “A large and growing body of evidence has revealed persistent gender-based differences in demographics, productivity, and advancement within the scientific workforce.”

Citing a 2015 UNESCO study, the gender report points out that only 28 percent of researchers around the world are women, with some countries having higher proportions (Bolivia – 63 percent, Venezuela – 56 percent), and others lower (Republic of Korea – 18 percent, Japan – 15 percent). Meanwhile, in France, Germany and the Netherlands, women comprise just 25 percent of researchers.

The percentage also varies by field, with the highest percentage of women in health and life sciences and the lowest in engineering and computer science. The report reveals the cause of that shortfall:

Though nearly equal numbers of men and women pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the STEM fields, the loss of women from the research career path begins at the PhD stage and continues through the highest organizational levels — a phenomenon somewhat controversially described as a ‘leaky pipeline.’

Prof. James Sterling, PhDSo why do we want more women in STEM? “To me the answer is quite simple,” writes Prof. James Stirling, Provost of Imperial College London, in Elsevier’s gender report:

With this level of gender imbalance, we are not properly exploiting the UK scientific talent base. If we want more high-quality scientists, I am absolutely convinced that we will find them amongst the female population, and that is why encouraging more young women into STEM and supporting them properly is so vitally important.

Indeed, more STEM professionals are needed in the workforce. According to a 2017 report by the US Department of Commerce, employment in STEM professions is growing at a much faster rate than in other professions and is expected to outpace non-STEM employment through 2024. If that trend continues, the US will have a shortage of 1.1 million STEM professionals by 2014, with the greatest demand in healthcare, the American Action Forum reports. And in engineering – a field particularly in short supply – the UK will need an additional 20,000 engineering graduates every year to meet demand, according to the 2017 EngineeringUK report.

Still, universities are having a hard time retaining and, in some cases, recruiting women for STEM programs. In Elsevier’s gender report, Prof. Stirling said Imperial colleges faces two main challenges:

First, we don’t have enough women students coming into our STEM programmes. At the student level, only 35% of our incoming undergraduates are women. Second, for those who do enter into STEM and pursue academic careers, we still aren’t supporting them adequately enough throughout their careers. When we track the percentage of women at various career stages, from undergraduate through postgraduate, postdoc, lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, and professor levels, we can clearly see the ‘leaky pipeline’ in action — the proportion of women decreases at each career stage. At the professor level, the percentage of women has fallen to just 15%. So, it’s really a two-fold problem we’re facing: not enough women are coming in to STEM subjects, and when they do come in they’re not reaching the highest ranks in the profession.

Prof. Stirling said an important way to address this problem is to encourage more young women to go into STEM by combatting gender bias in children. That’s the gist of a new program his colleagues created at Imperial College. In their annual Science Toy Award competition, they recognize manufacturers that create gender neutral toys that are scientifically interesting. “I believe that gender bias towards or against STEM really does start in young children,” Prof. Stirling wrote, “and programmes like the science toy awards can make a difference.”

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Elsevier’s gender report analyzes research performance across 20 years, 12 geographies, and 27 subject areas.

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Elsevier’s Gender and Science Resource Center has information for researchers, research leaders, policymakers and anyone else interested in gender diversity and its impact on science and the society.

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